Reviewed by Hannah Straton
Kendra Allen’s When You Learn the Alphabet (University of Iowa Press, 2019) won the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, judged by Kiese Laymon. Allen is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, and this is her debut essay collection. When You Learn the Alphabet contains nineteen essays—the longest is fourteen pages and the shortest is a single page. In these essays, Allen grapples with race and racism, family in love and in anger, gender roles, religion, war and trauma, and death and life.
When You Learn the Alphabet is unflinchingly honest. In the essay “Father Can You Hear Me,” Allen reckons with her understanding of black men, fatherhood, and masculinity through what she learned both explicitly and implicitly as a young black woman growing up in Dallas, Texas. She deconstructs her own lived experience with a compassionate yet critical eye.
“Growing up, this is what I comprehended about men. They were beautiful too black and too strong, they were too majestic for this world. They walked to a rhythm. Their skin was golden, no matter the shade, like trophies and their voices sounded like bass in my trunk. I knew I wanted one since I was a child.”
Each character in this book is their own person with triumphs and flaws, complicatedly human. Allen does a spectacular job of studying the people around her (and herself) without adding unnecessary judgement onto the page.
In the essay “Full Service,” Allen explores military service, racism, and black motherhood:
“She [Allen’s mother] had only joined the military to get out of the monotony of Dallas. This flag was all of a sudden. She told me it was for decoration. Thanksgiving morning, I snatched it off the wall and threw it under her car. When she noticed it was missing, she asked why did I take it down. I yelled CAUSE AMERICA DON’T LOVE YOU.”
This scene is quickly followed by historical and scholarly analysis of race and patriotism with poetry sprinkled in between. Each section in When You Learn the Alphabet mixes the lyric with the essayistic, the experimental with the traditional. Her voice is always genuine and authentic, and her style of writing switches seamlessly between overtly poetic to almost secretly lyrical in moments of reflection and description.
There were moments when I felt slightly uncomfortable, such as in the essay “How to Workshop N-Words” when the white professor says the n- word in a fiction writing workshop, or in “Polar Bear Express” when a white woman on the bus inserts herself into a private conversation between the narrator and a Nigerian man. These moments of uncomfortable awareness of my own privilege seem necessary to my understanding of this book, and there was never a moment when I was not intrigued by the story or in awe of Allen’s prose. When You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen should be required reading for all; I highly recommend this brilliant collection of heartfelt essays.